Monday 30 April saw the conviction of five men arrested in 2004 as part of Operation Crevice, following a year-long trial and 27 days of jury deliberations – a record for a UK trial. Two other men were found not guilty. A former accomplice of the gang, an American named Mohammed Junaid Babar, became a vital prosecution witness after being arrested by the FBI in an “unprecedented” deal that allowed him to testify in a British court.
The five convicted men – Omar Khyam, Jawad Akbar, Salhunddin Amin, Waheed Mahmood and Anthony Garcia, all of whom are British citizens – have been jailed for life for their parts in a bomb plot that could have killed and disrupted hundreds of innocent civilians. They allegedly had plans to attack a number of UK locations: Bluewater shopping centre, the Ministry of Sound nightclub and the gas network were all possible targets. Within their armoury they had 600kg of ammonium nitrate along with information and plans of how to turn it into a lethal explosive.
Police moved to arrest the men in 2004, following a MI5 and police surveillance operation that had watched a worldwide network of Islamist inspired extremists; the plot linked back to al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan and was, at the time, the largest ever counter-terrorism operation undertaken in the UK.
Since the end of the trial, media attention has been focused not only on the plans of the convicted men but also on their links with two of the suicide bombers responsible for the 7 July attacks on the London transport system; the links had not previously been made public due to the reporting restrictions surrounding ongoing trials in the UK.
Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer were both known to the fertilizer bomb plotters, but MI5 did not follow up leads on them which has led to intense media reaction that the security services made major mistakes and that a public enquiry should be launched.
Within hours of the conclusion of the trials, statements had been posted on the MI5 website describing the events surrounding the arrest of the fertilizer bomb plotters, their links with the 7 July bombers and why the leads were not followed up at the time.
Despite these explanations, however, many seem determined to point the finger firmly at a failure of the security services and the police.
It is easy to point fingers at the security services and ask how they missed Khan and Tanweer. It is less simple to determine how on earth the security services could have joined the dots without the benefit of hindsight.
Back in 2002, when the links were identified, we had very little understanding of what motivated people to carry out acts of what is now commonly known as “Islamist Terrorism”. Although we have made good progress in understanding the threat our rhetoric has failed to keep pace. Terms like “radicalization”, “extremism” coupled with an overall tag of “Islamist Terrorism” gives the lay observer the impression that there is some sort of continuum of thought or that somehow if you are a Muslim then you can’t be too Muslim or you might end up being a terrorist. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.
However, if you believe that there is some sort of well defined path to terrorism based upon your depth of faith then you cannot have failed to be alarmed that Khan and Tanweer were not followed up by MI5. But if you’re alarmed; think how bad it must feel for those directly affected by the atrocities of the 7 July 2005. For the past two years they have been trying to come to terms with an inexplicably horrific act and then someone tells you a couple of days ago that perhaps it all could have been avoided.
But there is no pre-defined path, there are no tell-tale signs in someone’s psyche and based on the intelligence on Khan and Tanweer in 2002 there would have been no way of predicting what they would have done next.
The UK, like many other countries, has a large immigrant population. It largely has been a two way street of gain. Many people have been able to prosper from the freedoms offered by the UK and in turn the UK has prospered both economically and socially. However, second and third generation immigrants, wherever they are, frequently have identity issues. Their parents made a conscious decision to move and were frequently working too hard to think too deeply about identity issues. But their children, in some cases, feel an identity vacuum.
A common response to that vacuum is to cast around and experiment with identities and many turn to the original culture and faith of their parents. A huge number of Islamic societies and groups exist in the UK. In the main they serve an extremely valuable function by allowing vulnerable people to experiment in a protected environment whilst trying to solve their identity issues. Unfortunately the people who wish us harm know this.
Many of these groups are deliberately targeted. The groups are generally informal and it is relatively easy to expose and hoodwink vulnerable people, eager to learn about the culture and faith of their forbearers, into thinking that someone’s political agenda is somehow legitimized by the faith of their parents. Our youth are therefore being “indoctrinated” rather than “radicalized” and the pace at which this happens is alarmingly fast.
But what of the case of Khan and Tanweer? As we know fifty-five people were flagged-up as having links to the main fertilizer plot by the intelligence services in 2002/3. At that time there was credible intelligence that fifteen of the fifty-five were actively seeking to carry out terrorist activity within the UK – they were therefore given priority. Khan showed up on five separate occasions and each time the intelligence pointed to credit card fraud and an interest in jihad overseas. We know that indoctrination is rapid – yet his goals remained static over a significant period of time: an indication perhaps that he was not being targeted for indoctrination.
The facts outlined here gives some explanation as to why this issue was deemed as a low priority and passed on to other authorities. However, as the atrocities on 7 July 2005 showed he was a suspect but for a much later outrage.
If there has been any failure that needs to be answered then it was our collective inability to identify and alert the security services when someone is being targeted and indoctrinated. The alternative is to ask the security services to monitor everyone – just in case.
The July issue of Monitor will be covering the conclusion of the trial and analyzing the media reaction in-depth.
Sandra Bell and Jennifer Cole